Peter Bogdanovich’s adaptation of Henry James’s novella arrived on screens right after his early '70 blockbuster trifecta The Last Picture Show, What's Up Doc?, and Paper Moon. For tiring reasons, the film community was ready to show the door to this apparently sacrosanct upstart (Bogdanovich had long been hailed, and still hails, as an unassailable film authority). So when Daisy Miller wasn’t quite of crowd-pleasing quality, the industry’s knive-sharpening--aimed at the golden boy--could be heard ringing from coast to coast.
In the end, absolutely no one went to see Daisy Miller and, in fact, no one wants to see it today (I'm trying to fight against this here). Guided by talk and genre alone, otherwise more adventurous movie lovers later automatically lumped it in with Bogdanovich’s career-destroying musical At Long Last Love (which has recently gotten a much lauded alternate cut) and his silent film homage Nickelodeon (which is also not as bad as many make it out to be). When I first got a copy of Daisy Miller, I was prepared for the worst. What I got was a splendid drama with definite comedic undertones, scripted by Frederic Raphael (Two for the Road, Eyes Wide Shut), that completely floored me with its curious combination of rapid-fire Hawksian repartee, regal costume drama, and dour '70s-flavored conclusions. Even with its eensy flaws, I found it impossible to reconcile its reputation with the actual film.
Barry Brown (the doomed lead actor of Robert Benton’s Bad Company who eventually succumbed to alcoholism in 1978) plays the flirty Frederick Winterborne, a dandy who sets his eyes on the charismatic but foolish title character, played with grinning flair by Bogdanovich’s off-screen love Cybill Shepherd (with her character's motormouth, she’s mesmerizing in the film--it's possible the role was too much for her to handle at that time--but her very presence is another unfortunately gossipy aspect that worked against its favor). Daisy is a game-playing dunce who makes all the wrong decisions, but she is also dynamic and well beyond her time in terms of sexual freedom, and that’s what draws Frederick‘s adventurous glance (he‘s a dunce, too, though an unexperienced one, and in realizing that, one can see where the attraction lies). It may be, though, that the thing hobbling this production is Frederick’s passive nature, which allows Daisy’s antics to dictate our main character's too-careful moves (which are really products of the time--and I should say, this is mainly HIS story). Let’s just say he and she--both ugly Americans vacationing in an unfamiliar Europe--pay deeply for their differently-shared naivete.
Seen now without all the gabbing about its makers, Daisy Miller stands as a stark gravestone to not-quite-dead assumptions about both male and female roles in courtship. The supporting cast includes Mildred Natwick as Frederick's dowdy aunt, a starkly unforgiving Eileen Brennan as a socialite who disapproves of Daisy’s very existence, a surprisingly elderly-seeming Cloris Leachman as Daisy’s mother (here, she defies her coinciding, Emmy-winning role as the liberated star of two 70s TV hits, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Phyllis), and an extremely unusual performance from folk-music artist James McMurtry--the son of Last Picture Show author Larry McMurtry, in his only film--as Daisy’s annoying, buck-toothed, sweets-loving kid brother. The film's stunning final moment--packed with insight into Henry James' indelible characters and setting, and climaxed with McMurtry's damning gaze at the failed man who had the power to save his sister--leaves one incredulous at the movie's summarily unfair reception. With its detailed costumes and sumptuous locations, even if it were remade today, Daisy Miller could not have been adapted any better. Like many of Bogdonovich's great films, it's entertaining, mirthful, gorgeous, dark, and extremely poignant.